It’s Narcissist Friday!
I was recently challenged to write what I think is a “clear definition of abuse.” You see the reason, right? It used to be that abuse was defined by someone going to the hospital. A slap, a kick, even a punch just wasn’t considered a big deal. Emotional or verbal abuse was laughed at. I remember a pastor who thought spanking his wife for disobedience was a normal thing in marriage. A woman who came to church with a black eye might have been pitied, but people didn’t consider her abused.
In order for law enforcement to get involved, a life had to be in danger. Children were not just spanked, but beaten without concern from educators, clergy, and government. Even today, spousal abuse does not prompt mandatory reporting in several states. If the patient is informed about available reporting and refuses it and is given contact information for helping agencies, even doctors and nurses are not required to report physical abuse in even more states.
Some things are different today. The idea of abuse has become a popular way to get attention. People feel abused when their feelings are hurt. If you disagree with their politics or their religious opinions, they feel abused. If you criticize their work or challenge them in any way, you are abusing them. That is an unhelpful use of the word and a manipulative use of the concept.
I won’t suggest that true abuse lies somewhere in the middle because I am not sure you can adequately define abuse by a certain action or behavior. Instead, I think you have to define abuse by intent and effect.
The third-grade girl sits behind a boy and pinches him every time he relaxes. Is that abuse? The boy meets her in the hall and gives her an unwanted kiss. Is that abuse? The woman teacher grabs the boy and squeezes his shoulder hard as she hauls him off to detention. Is that abuse? The same teacher hugs the girl who was kissed. Is that abuse? That teacher stops off at a restaurant on the way home and a man tells her she is attractive. Is that abuse? The man gets punched in the face by another man who thinks he is protecting the woman. Is that abuse?
We think we know what abuse is. We think we would know it when we see it and certainly when we experience it. We would like to think that abuse is a cut-and-dried issue with a clear definition, but it really isn’t. Instead, there are many factors that have to be considered. Courts and authorities have to listen to dramatic details to determine if there were an abuser and a victim.
Courts have to take into consideration such things as intent and effect. What did the offender mean to do? Knowing that abusers lie and that negligence is also a culpable offense, the court must decide whether something was abusive. And was the victim actually damaged or harmed? Again, knowing that victims can also lie and that discomfort or disagreement does not constitute abuse, the court must determine whether a person was abused. Today we understand the concept of negligence that causes harm even without intent. We also understand the damage caused by emotional abuse without significant physical effect. But these things make the definition of abuse even more difficult.
If you are the injured party, the victim, the intent of the offender almost doesn’t make a difference. You still hurt. You still suffer. But if you are the accused, intent makes a great deal of difference. You might even agree that you should be held accountable for an accident or unintended harm from negligence, but you would never consider yourself an abuser. In fact, the level and type of injury might matter a great deal to you. Are you liable for someone’s hurt feelings? Isn’t there a certain level of pain or harm that isn’t real suffering? At the same time, an attempt to harm that fails clearly indicates intent even if there is no injury at all. These things matter in the arguments.
So, I think the word has become too difficult. It is misused and avoided for personal and organizational interests. Instead of worrying about what to label as abuse, let’s consider what behavior should be held accountable. Here’s what I think:
Injury to a child, whether physical, emotional, or mental, should result in accountability whether intended or not. Greater injury may call for more serious accountability, as would more direct intent.
Injury to an adult in a dependent relationship should also call for accountability. A passenger in your car, a spouse, a dependent parent, a church member, an employee, a student: all of these have the right to expect a level of responsible care.
Injury that is directly intentional must call for accountability. If I punch someone in the face, I should be accountable for that action. A court may decide there was some mitigating reason, but I should still be investigated.
The intent of injury, even if the attempt fails, should also call for accountability. The desire to harm, combined with the act of the attempt, should be considered the same as a successful attempt.
Now, all of these are already used by our court system. These make sense and seem right to us. We link intent and cruelty. We link injury and violence. Everyone understands that cruel violence is abusive and, in normal circumstances (not military or self-defense), offenders should be held accountable. The problem is defining things like cruelty and violence.
To back away from this problem for a better perspective, abuse is simply the misuse of something or someone. In a personal relationship, abuse by that definition would be misusing the other person. A husband abuses his wife when he misuses her, for example. If he dumps his anger on her verbally, criticizes her relentlessly, makes her feel of less value than him or others, he is misusing her as a wife. His responsibility is to love and protect and support and so much more. To do less is to misuse both his and her roles in the relationship. The same is true if a wife demands or criticizes her husband in ways that demean him. We can think of other types of verbal and manipulative abuse.
It is hard for most of us to imagine a situation where it would be acceptable for a husband to beat, slap, or spank his wife in anger or “discipline.” But just because many people grew up in homes where that was normal, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t abusive. That is not what a husband should do to his wife. Nor would it be acceptable for a wife to do those things to her husband.
Parents should care for their children and love them. To do less is to misuse them. It is a misuse of the parental role, an abuse, for parents to neglect or injure their children. To withhold things necessary for life and health, to tear down identity and values, to use for sexual gratification—these seem obvious misuses/abuses.
Bosses have a responsibility to pay employees fairly and expect reasonable workloads. To do otherwise is a misuse of the employer/employee relationship and is abusive. Pastors have a responsibility to care for the spiritual health of their people. To burden with unreasonable rules or to take advantage of vulnerability for personal gratification is abuse. Obviously, there are many examples and many different situations.
So abuse is the misuse of a relationship role. When we use others with little or no regard for their pain and have only our own desires or needs in mind, we abuse. Some abuse calls for societal intervention based on the level of intent and injury.
Frankly, I feel somewhat intimidated writing this. It seems risky. So many have suffered so much pain, and I certainly don’t want to minimize that or marginalize anyone. Please accept this as an attempt to give some definition to a very difficult topic. If I have fallen short, I apologize.
If you feel that the treatment you are receiving in a relationship is inappropriate or hurtful, you have the right (and maybe the responsibility) to do something about it. Find a good counselor, or perhaps two, who can help you sort out what is happening. Very often, victims are so broken by the abuse they suffer that they don’t even know if it is wrong. I wish I could tell everyone to go to your church leaders, but I know how often they will allow people to suffer in order to maintain their image. Find someone who doesn’t know you or the person who is hurting you. If they say you are not suffering abuse, or they simply dismiss you in any way, ask someone else. Find someone who cares. You may come to the conclusion that you are not being abused, but you do have to deal with the fact of your pain and struggle. On the other hand, if you are being abused, there are people who can help. Find them.
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Narcissism in the Church
Many thanks to those who have picked up a copy of Narcissism in the Church! I am hearing a lot of serious and positive comments. Be sure to write an Amazon review! You can get a copy, in paperback or ebook, here: